A reflection on a major victory, and the collaboration that led us there.
By Sukhdip Purewal Boparai and Will Domine
Our homes are no place for racism or policing!
That was the message that community organizers at Starting Over Inc in Riverside, CA sent this September when they won the campaign to end the city’s “Crime Free Multi Housing” policy. This policy encouraged landlords to discriminate against people with incarceration histories and to evict people they suspect of crimes. HIP conducted independent research for the campaign, and supported organizers to develop their own research strategy and navigate local government departments and data. We’re celebrating this historic win by Starting Over, Inland Region Housing Justice Coalition, and the Solis Policy Institute, and our contribution to it. We’re also reflecting on the years of power and partnership-building that make this kind of work possible.
The win in Riverside is a victory for racial justice, housing, and health everywhere
The end of the Riverside “crime-free” housing policy is a major victory for racial justice, housing, and health everywhere. “Crime-free” housing, which has spread to over a quarter of local jurisdictions in California and is concentrated overwhelmingly in places with growing Black and Latinx populations, is one of the most overtly racist housing policies of our day. Under the guise of “safety,” cities and towns have used “crime-free” housing policies to close their gates to Black and Latinx people — many of whom have been gentrified out of their own hometowns. In the “crime-free” housing training manual used across the state, police directly promote racialized fear, dehumanization, and the tropes of anti-Black racism: “When you think of criminals, think of predators. Most criminals are like predators, looking for easy victims…The two-legged urban predator, the criminal, works the same way.”
The policing of BIPOC communities and discrimination against those who have been incarcerated are a major cause of housing and health crises. As our research with Starting Over Inc showed, discrimination and incarceration-related health care impacts drive houselessness: formerly incarcerated individuals are nearly 10x more likely to end up houseless than the general public, due to barriers such as housing discrimination. In Riverside, formerly incarcerated people who were able to access stable housing were almost half as likely to go to the ER, and almost two thirds less likely to be reincarcerated. We know that stable housing is critical for people to meet their basic health needs, find jobs, and avoid the excess surveillance and harassment by law enforcement that people who are unhoused routinely experience.
We’re proud of our role bringing public health research into this campaign. Following the final city counsel testimony to end the program, Avalon Edwards from Starting Over emailed saying:
“After over a year of advocacy, the Riverside City Council voted 5–2 to discontinue the discriminatory Crime Free Multi-Housing Program, which disproportionately harms renters of color and tenants impacted by the criminal legal system. Our team used HIP’s research on housing, public health, and incarceration in Riverside in meetings with policymakers, public talking points documents, and press releases. Your expertise was really a huge help. Thank you all again for your continued partnership on this work!”
Change work takes time, relationships, and trust
Critically, this win — and this partnership — did not happen overnight. Starting Over Inc spent countless hours over many years supporting people returning from incarceration, building analysis and power, and fostering movements to create this campaign. And HIP’s contributions grew out of several years of organizing and relationship building with Starting Over Inc — which reminds us once again that taking the time to build deep and trusting ties across people, organizations, and movements is key to making long-lasting change.
We first connected with Starting Over Inc in 2018 alongside the Riverside University Health System as part of our Power-Building Partnerships for Health program (PPH). HIP created PPH to cultivate powerful partnerships between local health departments and community organizers, and to support joint work towards health equity. Building these kinds of partnerships is often slow, intangible, and unrecognized work. Yet relationships bind our movements together, and are essential if governmental public health and nonprofits are going to be powerful partners to organizers and social movements.
For HIP, it was the relationships that we established during PPH, and subsequently through our Health Equity Awakened Fellows program for governmental public health leaders, that enabled us to be effective partners in Riverside. Because of this foundation, Starting Over Inc. invited us into their campaign work with open arms and trust. HIP and Starting Over Inc together were then able to leverage an “in” with local government in Riverside that allowed us to access the data we needed for the campaign. Years after we planted seeds during PPH, we’re proud of what has grown.
Building foundations for the work ahead
This win is a big step in the right direction, but much work remains. As Starting Over Inc’s Executive Director Vonya Quarles told us, “This is a humble beginning, one small step to achieve housing justice in the region. We’re still outnumbered 7 to 1. But when that changes, and we start hearing ‘yes we want to house people, yes we want to remove barriers, and yes, to housing justice’… then we are winning.”
Starting Over Inc has their sights set next on passing a local or statewide Fair Chance Housing policy, which would limit the use of criminal background checks in housing applications. And policies that reduce housing discrimination against people with records don’t tackle the underlying issues: Liberation requires replacing the prison industrial complex with systems of care, support, and healing, and passing policies that recognize homes as a basic human right, not a commodity. But with the leadership of organizers like Starting Over Inc, and dedication to the long, slow work of stitching people, organizations and sectors together into deeply connected movements, we know that we’ll get there.
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To talk about a social justice campaign that you’d like HIP’s support on, please contact Clara Long, HIP’s Director of Policy and Organizing. For inquiries about Power-building Partnerships for Health, please contact Julian Drix, Bridging Program Director.